Australian Biography

Jack Mundey - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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Jack, to begin with, could you describe to me the sort of place that you grew up in, what it was like as a setting for a childhood?

Well, Malanda is a small town on the beautiful Atherton Tablelands, 3000 feet above sea level, sixty miles west of Cairns, and it's generally considered one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. But in the thirties when I was on a ... belonging to a family on a farm, just outside this town ... well of course it was in the height of the Depression or should I say the depth of the Depression, and my first memories were milking the cows, bailing the cows up in the morning and the afternoon, going with my father on the spring cart, three times a week, into the local town, the butter factory, so it was pretty idyllic, I suppose, for a little kid on a ... on a ... on a farm.

What was your father like? What sort of a person was he?

Well, he'd been through a bit. I guess he was in his late thirties when I was born. I'm the fourth of five children and three girls and I was ... myself and a younger brother. And in the early twenties ... Well, first of all he was one of the pioneers in that area. He went up and settled there in 1908 when it was all scrub, it was all rainforest, and ironically they had to clear so many acres of their allotment, of their selection each year. The ... My father came from northern New South Wales and his mother bought him this property, I think, for a very small amount of money because the government in those days were encouraging people to go up to that area and, in fact, when my father selected this farm, they had to clear twenty or thirty acres each year so as they could retain the farm. When it was cleared sufficiently they bought some cows and the farming commenced. And my father was also a very good auctioneer and he worked on that as well. But then, of course, the Depression hit and he was one of many hundreds of farmers who lost their farm. And so, he ... he had retained a herd of cows - milking cows, and so [he] then went and rented land from other owners. And so when I was born, he was in that period, so the Depression. He'd lost his farm and he was then renting another farm. And milking cows was pretty arduous sort of work - milking cows twice a day, morning and evening, 365 days a year. So they were very ... they were ... of course I didn't appreciate it at the time being a small child, but the thirties were very difficult years as well we know, but exceedingly difficult for dairy farmers in such harsh conditions.

What year were you born?

I was born in the end of '29 - right in the heart of the Depression actually, so my first memories as a child is through the thirties.

You tend not to think of dairy farming in Queensland - in far north Queensland.

Well, I think it's one of the only areas ... At that time, when I was a child, it was one of the only areas in the tropics where they had dairy farming but of course because it was 3,000 feet or thousand metres above sea level, well, it was modified. The harshness of the subequatorial region of Cairns ... the thousand metres above that meant that the farming was possible. And in fact, later on, that farming area, the dairy farming area had the longest milk runs in the world. It went right out to Darwin and down as far as Townsville, so dairy farming was really ... was something rare in the ... in the tropics anywhere in the world at that time.

As a kid did you like the dairy farm? Did you like doing that work on the farm?

Well, you didn't ... One didn't know much else, did they? So ... but it was very pleasant. I mean, as I mentioned before, it was an extremely attractive physical environment and, yeah, I think it was, you know, quite pleasant. We were close to the town. We were only a mile or two from the ... from this town, Malanda.

And what about your relationship with your father? How did he treat you? How did you get on together?

He was ... I think it was better than average father-son relationship. But having in mind that I was only six when my mother died ... I was actually very close to my mother [coughs] and she was ... Well, as a little kid ... I suppose, most little kids are generally closer to their mother than their father. But, yeah, I got on quite well with both of them.

What do you remember about your mother?

Well, my mother was ... she was ... had a reputation as a very fine pianist and she played at different functions in the ... in the area of the Atherton Tableland. And she was a very kindly woman. Of course, that period also was extremely difficult for women in the farming areas, even more so than men, I suppose you'd say, having in mind that the Depression was at its worst and she had, with the arrival of myself, four children, ranging from eleven down, and then four years later she had my younger brother. So there were five little kids on a ... on a poverty stricken dairy farm. Well, not poverty-stricken but, I mean, extremely difficult circumstances so it was a pretty challenging period. The butter was at an all time low and so it was ... Well, as everybody knows, the thirties were extremely difficult for city or country people alike. I suppose the advantage of the country we always had food because of the ... the farms, so you had that advantage over the poor working class people in the big cities. And naturally as a child, I didn't have an appreciation of ... of all of that. And as I said, my mother was a very kind person and when she played at some of these functions I went along with her. I was looked upon by the other kids as a bit of a mummy's boy, and then of course, she was only in her early forties when she died, and so you had ... my little brother was only one or two. And at that stage the children were farmed out to different relatives, and my elder sister went to work in a convent in Cooktown. Two of the other sisters went to boarding school at ... at Herberton, near ... not far away. I remained with my father, who was then working on another farm. Just working for a farmer, and my baby brother was with a grand aunt in a nearby town of Atherton so we were a very scattered family because of the sad circumstances of my mother's death in the ... in the ... just before the war.

What did your mother die of?

Twisted bowel they called it in those days - some internal problem. She died very suddenly.

And when did the family get back together again? Did they get back together again?

Well, it was ... it was a slow process. It was during the early war years when my father went to yet another farm as a share farmer, which means that the ... the ... you get a share of the amount you make off the farm, and that was in the period of ... by that time the war had broken out, and so things changed quite considerably, because the Atherton Tableland was the area in which there was over a million soldiers pass through in the war years. Of course the Coral Sea Battle and the fight against the Japanese was centred in northern Australia, or the area around northern Australia, and so the Atherton Tableland all of a sudden became a very important area in the sense that both the United States and Australian troops were trained there for jungle fighting in New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific, and all of a sudden the military authorities wanted all the milk they could get. And so the harshness of the thirties vanished somewhat as more farmers found that they could sell their milk to the ... to both the United States and the Australian army and naval, [and] air force services. So the quality of life actually improved in the war years despite the fact that by then I was ten or twelve-year-old and we had an appreciation of just how close we were to being invaded. And I remember in the Coral Sea Battle, for example, I think it was '42, where literally the sky was full of planes flying north, flying up to that battle. I remember that well because the planes left a nearby aerodrome at Mareeba, on the edge of the Atherton Tableland, and so of course the ... the influx of ... of troops into the area changed things considerably in the ... in Far North Queensland.

As a kid did it have a big effect on you, the fact that the place was full of soldiers and so on. Were you very interested in it all?

More interested in peace but, well, I mean, naturally with those number ... with that number of people in the area, it has an impact. And also, I don't know if we appreciated just how close we came to being invaded but I remember at the school ... like the better off ... Such was the fear at the time that the better off people came south because the idea of the Brisbane Line that was going to be compromised with the Japanese and part of Australia would be surrendered and ... and so the Brisbane Line was a very strong thought in the minds of a lot of people in Far North Queensland. And then the better off people came south and away from the likely battleground. And even those on the coast that weren't so affluent came up to the Atherton Tableland to get away from Cairns which they thought ... like Darwin was bombed ... that Cairns would be the next place bombed. And so it was ... there was much disruption in the whole area and they were very anxious years, the early '40s - very anxious years in North Queensland and even as a child there was an appreciation. I remember at the primary school we all used to have drills in case of air attacks, know how to go into trenches and all of that preparation for the bombing that almost came, so it was a period of great anxiety for all of those people in the country, of course, but more particularly in the far north because that's where was the closest area to the actual war.

Why do you think your father decided to keep you with him, of all the kids?

Oh, I think it was probably a male thing. I mean the ... the ... my father was, I suppose I'd term him a relaxed Catholic. We weren't ... we weren't ever, you know, deeply religious but the two ... Well, my eldest sister, who more or less became the mother when she was only thirteen, when our mother died ... and of course after she was about fifteen or sixteen and she went and worked in a convent in Cooktown and the next two sisters went to a boarding school. So I suppose it was possible for the father to have me with him ...

He could have sent you away too of course.

Yeah, he tried that later on [Laughs] and I later the Marist Brothers pretty quickly. But, no, I think, well, you know, little kid, you're five or six ... six or so, and so I suppose that being his son and heir [Laughs] no ... But ... but ... but the family was scattered and I guess he thought that I would stay with him, and the brother of course was too young. But when he ... they gathered a bit of togetherness we went back to the farm, which would then be in the early forties.

Where did you go to school?

I went to a number of schools. He moved around as I mentioned - went from one farm to another. I went ... my first school was a little school, a one teacher school called Chigan [?] and my next school was in Malanda, where I spent the rest of my primary school education ... which is a lovely little town nestled on the Johnston River right in the centre of the Atherton Tableland, and as I said before, known for its milk and butter, and of course before that, timber had been great source of wealth in the area.

Jack, how did you get on at school? What was school like for you?

Well, I think that I was an average student. I'll put it that way. Well I think living on the farm you had to catch the horse and ride the horse to school, most of the schooling I went to. Another school I went to we used to walk. So the kids there would catch the horse and throw a corn bag over it and ride it bareback to school and let the horse off and so the school itself, it was ... I was an average kid at school, I guess. The things I liked most were history and geography - always had a interest in history and also [was] greatly concerned about knowledge of geography. So I guess that those things remain with me actually, later on.

How did you get on with the other kids?

Nothing exceptional. I think I was just a pretty average kid. Got on quite well - mixed ... mixed in reasonably well. I was always, I suppose, if you divide the human race into extroverts and introverts, I guess I was a bit more introverted than extroverted. Might have changed later on, but ... so, no, I was a pretty average kid.

Were there any signs of leadership qualities in you when you were a kid at school?

No, nor later.

You weren't the leader of the gang or anything?

No.

You didn't cook up the mischief?

A share of, I suppose, but no - I think, when I look back, when you put it that way, I think I was just a pretty average kid.

What interested you most at school? What kind of things were you ... you said you were interested in history and geography. What about sport? Did that ...

Yeah, I was a bit sport mad actually. I mean ... and ... as a ... as a young person I [was] particularly interested in cricket and, of all things, boxing actually, and I fought in a number of boxing tournaments, and at that time, as I mentioned before there were soldiers on the Atherton Tableland and I remember the early '40s being ... there must have been six or eight thousand people at a big boxing tournament, and I was a better than average schoolboy boxer, and fortunately when I was sixteen I tore the muscles in my back of my left shoulder and thankfully it cut short a promising boxing career.

Why do you say 'thankfully'?

Well because, I mean, even though I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of boxing at the time and [was] mad on it, with the passage of decades of course I changed completely to the ludicrous position of men getting themselves fit and punching each other insensible. It's against everything that I stand for. But as a kid, and particularly in that period, there was a ... boxing was booming and I was caught up in the boxing bug. But I turned then to ... only slightly better I suppose ... rugby league and I was a good rugby league player and that represented the Atherton Tableland and played right throughout the north. And cricket in the summer and football in the winter and that's how I came to Sydney actually, is that I was invited down to try out with Parramatta when I was nineteen years old. And so in my teenage period, I was ... at school and then after school, when I went to work, I was just ... I suppose sport dominated most of those teenage years.

Where did you go to high school?

Very briefly. [Laughs and coughs] I went to the Marist Brothers boarding school in Cairns - St. Augustine's, and I think the authoritarian methods didn't coincide with some of my thinking and in fact after about six months I ran away and went to work with an old bootmaker ... or to a bootmaker who had previously been in my home town, Malanda, and I went and ... with him and my father found out I was there and came down and took me back to Malanda. So my career at the Marist Brothers was cut short by escaping.

Now that's a fairly quick way of describing what must have been a big moment: to actually run away from school. What had gone on that had made you really not like it at the Marist Brothers? Could you fill that out a bit?

Well, I think that .. I don't know whether I was spoilt or not but I ... I didn't like the fact of living in a boarding school and being compelled to go to mass and benediction. And the rigorous nature of that life did not appeal to me and I wasn't cut out for boarding school.

Did you feel a loss of freedom, of autonomy for yourself there, that you couldn't self-direct, that you had to do everything you were told?

No, I don't think I had a great philosophical, in depth discussion with myself about it at all. I think I just said well I didn't particularly like it and made off. So it wasn't ... it wasn't carefully worked out.

Were they cruel to you? Did they hit you?

Well, not really cruel, no. A bit harsh maybe but no - it wasn't cruel. It's just that ...

It was just ...

My independent spirit didn't fit in.

There's a lot of talk about Brothers' schools where kids got really badly abused.

No, certainly, certainly not. Not that, and no there was none of that at all, quite frankly, no.

But it was a place you didn't like and you ran away. What did your father say when he came to pick you up?

Well, I think he was displeased about my departure but he ... he accepted it, and I went back to the ... to the Tableland and I became an apprentice to a ... to a plumber, so started work shortly after.

And what was that like?

Oh I liked it. As I mentioned before, I guess my thinking in those years was very much on cricket and football and they become the dominating influence on my life. Very much a sport mad, young teenager.

And I would have thought that possibly at the Marist Brothers boarding school you would have got a good opportunity for an outlet with that, and that would have been a part of it that you enjoyed. Did you play for the school?

Yeah, I played both. Both. It was at the end of the cricket season, and the beginning of the football season, before my academic career was cut short by my departure. So yeah, I got on okay at those things, of course. It was ... it was the other part of the curriculum that wasn't so acceptable.

So, working as an apprentice, you still were very much absorbed with the sport. How did that develop then for you - the sporting side of things? You were doing better and better at it. Where ... where was it taking you? [INTERRUPTION - PLANE]

So working as a plumber's apprentice, what did that involve for you?

Bit like sorcerer's apprentice, no [Laughs]. Well, it was just naturally in a farming area it meant going out and ... and looking after windmills, going down the wells to fix the pumps, pumping water from the rivers up to tanks, making galvanised water tanks, putting them in place on tank stands out in the countryside, putting the pipes from the rivers up to the tanks, that sort of ... making cream cans, and all sorts of work for farming communities.

Did you stay in that job until you left that area?

Yeah, I stayed there for four ... over four years, until I came to Sydney.

And how old were you when you came to Sydney?

I was nineteen when I came to Sydney.

So you spent a significant part of your youth tilting at windmills, did you? Tilting at windmills.

One might say. Yeah.

During that period that you were a young teenager and so on, did you ever get into trouble? Did you get up to any mischief? Did you do anything that brought you ... got your father angry with you, or got you in trouble with your boss or anything?

No, I think that the even nature of my life was shown in my youth where I was just a perfectly ... a perfectly behaved teenager. [Laughs]

In every respect?

In most respects and I'd have to search a long time to find out where I went wrong.

There was no ... You didn't ... There wasn't any escapade that you remember that you ...

Nothing worth reporting for posterity.

So what ... what made you leave this beautiful setting that you were living in? What made you come south to Sydney?

Well, I think the stupidity of being sports mad and ... and wanted to try myself out in the big smoke. Even though the parish priest at the time - he used to rail against the drift to the cities. I put that as aside actually but it was ... it was my really ... it was my interest in sport that brought me down. I ... The previous year before I came down my sister, Bernice, had suggested I come down to the Sydney Show, the Royal Show and that was my first experience of the ... an eighteen-year-old coming all the way down from the Far North, because I think it took about three days to get here on the train. And I came down to the Royal Easter Show and ... and went round all the places: city sights and beaches, the harbour bridge, and the Blue Mountains, etcetera, etcetera and ... and I was smitten by the ... by the big city and I liked it very much, but I guess I wouldn't have come back so quickly had I not been invited back to try out as a ... as a football, [on] a football team.

[end of tape]

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